A months-long dispute between the Oak Bluffs selectmen and a Circuit avenue businessman came to a head this week when the owner of an unbuilt lot at 16 Circuit avenue saw fresh opposition to his latest proposal for a business venture.
The selectmen have been in discussion all summer, with no outcome, over whether Bill Coggins would be allowed to install food trucks on his property. Now Mr. Coggins is seeking permission to rent his property to six retail carts for the next two summers while he pursues plans to build a two-story building on the narrow lot. At their meeting Tuesday night the board postponed a decision on his latest plan, citing concerns about aesthetics and competition with neighboring storefronts.
In response, Mr. Coggins voiced frustration with the continued deferrals.
“For two years now, I have spent a lot of money on that [lot], and I have a right to make a return on it,” he told the selectmen. “I think I have come up with a pretty fair compromise . . . . So what I am asking is that the town show a little consideration and a little foresight.”
Mr. Coggins first applied to the board in April to operate a food truck and a retail cart on the lot. In May, selectmen approved a license for the Pick-a-Pearl jewelry stand, but held off approving the food truck, saying the town had not passed any regulations for food trucks in the downtown area. Town administrator Robert Whritenour has since drafted regulations that impose restrictions on food trucks, including prohibiting them from all downtown streets, but the selectmen have not voted on the new rules.
In August, as the food truck issue languished, Mr. Coggins appeared with a new proposal to rent the space to two more retail carts, Soft as a Grape, and Jellyfish, for the remainder of the summer. A decision was also postponed on that vote.
On Tuesday Mr. Coggins’s latest proposal to rent his lot to six retail carts over the next two summers saw a cool reception from the majority of the selectmen present.
Michael Santoro, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Walter Vail, said he opposed the proposal both as a selectman and as a member of the Oak Bluffs Association, citing concerns that the carts would hurt the brick and mortar business community. The business association is a group of dues-paying business owners and community members formed with the purpose of promoting business in town. In July, the association formally opposed allowing food trucks downtown. The association has not yet voted on the issue of open-air retail carts.
The discussion included a broader discussion of the state of business in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Santoro said he was concerned that the carts might force storefronts out of business.
He cited the example of Jellyfish, a jean and T-shirt business that occupied a storefront on Circuit but couldn’t make the rent for a second summer. In August Jellyfish sought permission to operate a cart on Mr. Coggins’s property.
But Mr. Coggins rejected the argument that the carts would become a trend. “There is no way,” he said. “Nothing I put in there is going to cause anything to go out [of business],” he said.
The six carts Mr. Coggins hopes to install on his property would be operated by vendors similar to the jewelry cart and the Soft As A Grape T-shirts, he said. But selectmen bristled at the idea of selling products outside that are also for sale indoors.
“I also have a problem with T-shirts,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “Because there is competition and you are going to have people [selling] T-shirts inside screaming that it is unfair competition . . . ”
“You are legislating competition here,” Mr. Coggins replied before turning to the discussion of the town’s economic health. “The town is dying a slow death and you guys are encouraging it,” he said.
Selectman Gregory Coogan took a different view from his colleagues, as he has on the issue of food trucks. “We are really getting close to trying to limit competition and that frightens me a little bit,” Mr. Coogan said. “And I don’t think the OBA is the only voice that we need to hear. I have always supported the businesses in town but I do think we need different options for people to go and see and that’s been slowly sliding backward.”
Mr. Santoro warned that allowing carts might “open up a can of worms,” inviting other central district businesses to put carts in their alleyways.
Ms. Barmakian shared the concern. “They have smaller places but they have every right to put up carts, too [if Mr. Coggins wins permission],” she said. “And that is problematic for me.”
Mr. Coggins said his lot is unique, and space limitations on other properties would make a similar business plan impractical.
Mr. Santoro and Mr. Coggins exchanged heated words. At one point, Mr. Coggins asked Mr. Santoro to recuse himself, considering his position as a businessman and owner of the Lookout Tavern.
Christine Todd, executive director of the business association, requested that the board postpone a vote on the matter pending a poll of the association membership.
In the end the selectmen said they would revisit the matter at their next meeting.
Mr. Coggins left the meeting in frustration.
“I can’t keep putting up with you guys pushing this off for two weeks,” he said.
“I have been doing this since March 23 . . .”
The sound of the gavel drowned him out as the selectmen moved on to another agenda item. Reached by telephone Thursday, Mr. Coggins said he hopes to bring the issue to mediation with the town before resorting to legal action.
“In my opinion, and in my lawyers’ opinion, I am zoned to put in the type of business that I am asking to put in,” he said, adding: “It’s a buildable lot, there are no bylaws and restrictions at all.”